Read an Excerpt
ADDICTS TALK ABOUT LIVING SOBER
By BUCKY SINISTER
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2011 Bucky Sinister
All rights reserved.
GETTING SOBER VERSUS LIVING SOBER
Anyone can get sober. If you have the money or the right insurance, you can go to some really nice detox and rehab facilities. They'll get you sober. They'll clean you out. You'll probably even enjoy it. One of the only consistent complaints I hear from people in such programs is about having to get up early every day. People of all types have this problem: the early rising. Getting sober is not the hard part. Living sober is what's difficult. Getting through each day, getting through the rough moments, the hard patches, the trying times, that's what's hard. We hear and say in the meetings to "practice these principles in all our affairs," but what does that mean really?
Living sober is against instinct. We've learned to live drunk, high, and wasted. The way you act in a crack house is not the way you act at the DMV. The way you react to a rude asshole in a bar is not the way you react to a rude asshole at work. What we've learned in order to protect ourselves, our possessions, and our stash is not helpful to the rest of our lives; actually, acting in these ways will ruin our lives. I don't think it's the big things in life that are going to take me out. It's the little things that make me feel like I'm losing my mind. I've been through deaths and breakups and job losses sober. Love, death, and money trouble are the big three dramas in our lives. Those things are so obvious to drink over that I never would. It's such an ordinary excuse.
Steps and Anti-Steps
When the big ones happen, that's when I get super into the program stuff. I call people. I have special themed meetings with my sponsor. I go to new meetings. I go to meetings more often. I work the Tenth Step rigorously. I divide all parts of life into two camps based on the Serenity Prayer. When the big things happen, that's when I'm at my best program-wise, which is why I don't think I'll ever relapse over one of those.
It's like having a really sharp knife. You never cut yourself with it, because every time you pick it up, you're super careful with it. You respect the danger of the situation. However, with a dull knife, you cut tomatoes while holding them in your hand, you peel apples while watching television. That's when you cut off a finger.
Love, death, and money trouble are the big three dramas in our lives. Those things are so obvious to drink over that I never would. It's such an ordinary excuse.
The tiny traumas are what we should look out for. It's the little things that get in the way of my life. Things like missing the bus, a coworker sending me a snotty email, or a friend flaking out on me can put me in a bad mindset. A car splashes gutter water on me. My shoelace comes untied in the subway station bathroom and drags through the floor, soaking up the pee of strangers from around the world. The smelly guy sits next to me on the train, then cracks open a can of malt liquor. Nothing huge in the big picture, but in the moment, those are some fucked up situations.
I can easily slip into the mindset that the world is out to get me. Bad things happen to me and no one else. I can feel the world plotting against me. People are trying to get over on me. This mindset can affect how I treat every situation and person I see thereafter. This mindset usually reasons and thinks like I did when I was on a self-righteously indignant bender. It's the drunk me that a lot of people refer to as stinkin' thinkin'. Getting stuck in this headspace is what eventually takes a lot of people out. This is the hard one to shake.
We have to do more than stop drinking; we have to learn how to live sober.
This, in and of itself, is not sober behavior. Acting like a drunk is a good way to start being one again. Take the alcohol out of a drunk asshole and all you have left is an asshole. We have to do more than stop drinking; we have to learn how to live sober. The steps help us with this.
But sometimes we take steps backwards: anti-steps. We return to our defects of character, we gain resentments, we exert our will in the wrong situations, we embrace our insanity, we become unmanageable, and then we go out.
We have to do more than just put down drugs and alcohol. We have to put down the whole lifestyle. It's an interwoven life, and it doesn't work right without each piece in place.
There's a What Now? phase with recovery and sobriety. At first, what to do is really simple: go to meetings, work with others, do the steps. But something happens once life balances out, and the waters become calm. Once you've worked the steps, you've had a number of commitments, and you've helped other people through the steps, then what? It's a weird phase in which I've seen a lot of people relapse.
We're creatures of habit. There was some comfort in doing the same things every day or maybe every hour. It's a routine that we were in love with. Every hour is accounted for. We're busy finding the means to get our vice, getting it, using it, coming down or recovering from it, and repeating the process.
It's a routine that we were in love with ... we're busy finding the means to get our vice, getting it, using it, coming down or recovering from it, and repeating the process.
In this mindset, the bigger questions of life are all answered. The practicing addict doesn't have to think about what the purpose of life is, about the worth of the moment, or the long term consequences of his actions. But take away the immediate answer of drink or use, and the recovering addict is faced with the existential questions faced by the rest of humanity.
What now? What should I do with my life? Have I wasted my entire life? Is it too late to start over? How am I going to live outside the biodome world of rehab, meetings, and 12-Step coffee?
The Fuck-Its are what you have when you feel like giving up everything, especially your sobriety, over something you're going through. "Fuck it!" is what you will say before you do something really stupid.
Recovery is too hard. Fuck it.
Not drinking is boring. Fuck it.
The fourth step is unreal. Fuck it.
What I've found with the Fuck-Its, is that they seem to come, not when some horrible event happens, but rather during a series of tiny ones that add up to a real hassle. It starts with missing the bus, and then breaking a shoelace, and then getting splashed by a car too close to the curb; then a random guy flashes you some attitude, and a vending machine eats your money. That's when, over the buck-fifty I put in the machine and got nothing back, I feel like drinking whiskey and killing people with an ax.
While the big ones (deaths, breakups, and money trouble) have been really hard on me at times, they are such obvious things to go out over that I don't really consider it. I immediately take action, go to meetings, and call my sponsor and friends, so I don't really see those as much of a relapse risk.
Those little things in life though, really fuck with my sense of control. They bring up feelings of "the world is fucking with me" or "there really is a God, and He's pissed at me for not believing in Him." These thoughts are a sand trap. I'll get sucked in if I set foot in it. This is why the Fuck-Its scare me much more than life's big traumas.
I met Amy Dresner in the mid-'90s on the spoken word scene. I ran an open mike in town, a notoriously debaucherous gathering where many people met their drug connections. People came for the pot or the speed or the heroin and they stayed for the poetry. Every summer, freaks of all types showed up in San Francisco, and many of them ended up at my event. Amy was one of those people.
Amy came from a good family in Beverly Hills. Most people think that the life she came from guarantees a good life, but for some of us, the end result is inevitable. Addiction is no respecter of social status. Amy was no exception.
Within a few months, Amy was indulging in drugs and hanging out with the other addicts. It doesn't take us long to find our kind in the world. In less than a year, Amy was back in southern California. There were various attempts at quitting and rehab before she finally gave up quitting on her own and decided on 12-Step recovery.
Since then, Amy has put her life back together. She is married to a good man and has repaired her family relationships. She's also pursuing her dreams of being a standup comedian.
The comedy world is second only to rock music for its reputation as a narcotic playground. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, the three men commonly thought of as the best comedians ever, all had substance abuse problems. Bruce died directly of his usage, and Richard Pryor did serious damage to himself while high, including setting himself on fire. The stories of Sam Kinison's drug use are legendary. Mitch Hedberg died as his career climbed in proportion with his drug use. Relative to these figures, the alcoholic seems tame by comparison.
Headliners of comedy clubs usually drink for free in the club. They don't always get paid that well, and they're often in town with little else to do, but the clubs are always serving alcohol. Booze softens the travel, the jet lag, and the rough nights in little towns. It's one of the few jobs where it's not unusual to drink during work hours. So how does Amy handle the comedy gig sober? How does she keep from relapsing while surrounded by free drinks? How about dealing with the competition, rejection, and personal politics that go along with it?
"Comedy is what I wanted to do my whole life," Amy told me. From a young age, watching Richard Pryor standup shows on HBO, Amy wanted to tell stories and make people laugh. But she never tried it until she was clean and sober.
Amy explains, "I was terrified. Also, drug addiction was my full time job. The [12-Step] program taught me how to show up and not let fear run my life."
She made sure she had a solid foundation in her sobriety before getting into the clubs.
"I didn't do standup at all until I had a year sober. And I'm totally out to the industry. I tell everyone on stage first thing that this is who I am. However, most people in the comedy clubs are there not only to laugh but to get fucked up. I try not to be preachy about it.
"Alcoholics have three gears: fuck you, poor me, and where's mine," Amy says.
This applies directly to the comedy world. Behind the scenes of standup is an emotional catfight of jealousy, bitterness, and envy. There's a certain amount of entitlement and self importance that a person has to have just to get up on stage, and the ones who stick with it are often rife with such personality attributes, so much so that it works against them.
Amy continues, "I'm sensitive, like all alkies. I cry. When I have a bad set, I call other comics. There are a lot of sober comics."
Amy counts her relationship with her higher power as the foundation of her career. "Comedy is a gift that's bestowed on me. I say 'God, be funny through me and I'll get out of the way.'
"When I get the Fuck-Its, I really think about the consequences of using. I'm married; it would fuck that up. I have epilepsy; I'll have a seizure if I do speed again. I just know it's not going to work. I think back to the last times I used. It always ends with me in the psych ward or the hospital. If I still feel like I have the Fuck-Its, I wait it out. I go to a meeting. I share, and it passes.
"I think back to that first year. I don't want to go through that again. It was the hardest thing I've ever done," Amy concludes.
Most of the successful comics I've met have been really nice people, but on the way to the top, there are a lot of bad attitudes, personality problems, and character defects. There are a lot of people who feel they were passed over for some superficial reason such as looks, age, or ethnicity, and resent the others who made it instead. There's unhealthy competitiveness that leads to bitterness and jealousy. There's self-pity for not having the money, time, or physical looks that the comic perceives he needs to make it.
I'm not sure where these comics are picking up the dry drunk behavior, but they have it. Some of them may have alcoholic parents, but it does remind me of the phrase "seem to have been born this way." It's really creepy to watch these guys act like drunks without having a drink. But while there's plenty of negative behavior around, Amy focuses on the other sober comics and comics with positive attitudes.
MORE HABITS THAN A CONVENT
I was standing in line with a fellow 12 Stepper in a supermarket. This homeless guy gets arrested for shoplifting a bottle of vodka in his pants. Being alkies, we're fixated on the detail that it was Royal Gate vodka, the cheapest swill they carried in the store. Being alkies with a few years sober, we consider ourselves armchair psychologists.
"Look at that guy," my friend said to me. "Poor guy's esteem is so low he doesn't think he deserves to steal anything better."
"Nah, I don't think so," I countered. "He's been drinking that swill for so long he has some kind of emotional loyalty to it. He actually wants that more than anything else."
"Hey, man," my friend yelled out to the guy being searched by a security guard. "Out of all the liquor in the store, why did you steal the Royal Gate?"
The guy looks at us like we're nuts. "Because it was on sale."
Okay, that's nothing more than a joke, and you're free to tell it like it happened to you. But the reality is that we were one of the two addicts: the one who does whatever's cheapest and most available, or the one who does the same stuff every time.
I loved the consistency of alcohol. It's in the same place during the same hours for the same price every day. A pint bottle is the same size every time you get one. It's never cut with something else. There's always more when you run out.
I hated when the drugs ran out, trying to get more. It is fun when it shows up in front of you, when someone you know has an eightball of coke or a bag of pills or whatever, but trying to find more when that runs out was maddening to me. It would cost different prices; it would be of varying strength; I couldn't take it. I couldn't even enjoy the good stuff because I would retroactively resent every time I'd gotten lesser quality stuff in the past.
I loved the consistency of alcohol. It's in the same place during the same hours for the same price every day. There's always more when you run out.
I liked doing the same thing every day, even when it wasn't fun. It was the same, and there was something comforting about that to me. After a chaotic childhood, it was nice to feel like I had control of the world, even if that world was a fifth of whiskey and watching TV.
We love the routines of acquiring, using, and recovering. It answers so many questions in our lives. There are three things to do, and we can do them over and over.
Ten Things Every Recovering Addict Should Have
We're creatures of habit. Even the word habit is commonly used in conjunction with drug use. Drug habits. Habitual users. But it's beyond using. It's habitual living.
We have habits that are associated with our drug and alcohol use. They're not all so easy to see as the habits that are directly related. There are life choices we make that are made because they help us live the addict's lifestyle. We may think they're not related, but they are.
As I look around my writing space right now, all I see is clutter. This is something I've tried to overcome several times in sobriety, but I've had better luck quitting smoking than becoming a tidy and organized person. Mind you, when I was out, this problem was much worse. But it's still not where it needs to be for a man of forty.
I've fixed a few things along the way, things that didn't seem like much at the time, but once I made the change, I felt like I had cheated myself for years. So hopefully the clutter problem gets whacked into shape when I take the plunge and buy some real grownup furniture.
After a chaotic childhood, it was nice to feel like I had control of the world, even if that world was a fifth of whiskey and watching TV.
I have problems with certain habits and undoubtedly you have problems of your own. Here are habits you should get, habits you should break, and habits of normal people that will amaze and astound you.
Socks and Underwear
There's some weird thing that happens with addicts and their undies. It's one thing to not wash your jeans or your jacket; it's another thing to not wash your socks. We get used to being in utter filth. When you're fixing with puddle water or flat Faygo, having worn the same underwear for a few days is a nonissue.
But it's still gross. Not as gross as many of the other things that accompany addiction. Not as gross as abscesses. Not as tragic as meth mouth. Not nearly as unsanitary as the trash cans of vomit around the room or crapping in a bucket in the corner of the squat.
But you're not a junkie anymore. And even though you've made progress and you're much cleaner than you were, you still have a way to go.
I've known junkies who had trench foot, a foot disease common with the soldiers in the trenches of World War I. It was known as jungle rot in the Viet Nam War. The medical name for this is immersion foot. It happens if you never take your boots off for weeks. Prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, cold conditions can cause it. It can lead to gangrene.
Excerpted from STILL STANDING by BUCKY SINISTER. Copyright © 2011 Bucky Sinister. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.